The sea, the sun, drunkenness, sensuality and saudade: the legend of bossa nova can be summed up in one story. One late afternoon in the early 1960s, in the Ipanema district of Rio, two friends met at the Café Veloso to sip a few drinks in the shade, plot and sing. The elder, Vinicius de Moraes, was a diplomat, but first and foremost a poet and guitarist. The younger, Antônio Carlos Jobim, known to his friends as Tom, was a composer, and passionate about Ravel, Debussy or Chopin and a connoisseur of the music of his own country. Often, while returning from the beach, a pretty young woman with green eyes would pass by the pair. Her elusive figure and musical manner evoked a poetic response from one and melodic inspiration in the other. A Garota de Ipanema, The Girl From Ipanema, was heard around the world and is said to be the most-covered song after Yesterday by The Beatles.
When they wrote it in 1962, the diplomat and the former architecture student were not making their first attempt. Back in 1956, Vinicius de Moraes proposed to Tom Jobim that he perform the music for his musical Orfeu da Conceição. When it was made into a film by Marcel Camus, Orfeu Negro was an international success, winning a Palme d'or at Cannes in 1959 and an Oscar in Hollywood. To perform their songs, the author and composer joined forces with João Gilberto, a young singer-guitarist from Salvador de Bahia who imbued their samba-inspired style with offbeat guitar playing and the whispering phrasing typical of this new wave (bossa nova). The first trace of the trio appeared in 1958, on the album Canção do Amor Demais by the popular Elizete Cardoso. But it was the 78 Chega de Saudade/Bim Bom, recorded by João Gilberto the following year, that saw the bossa phenomenon really break out. Overnight, young well-bred Cariocas started hanging out on the beach, strumming their guitars for friendships and flirtations, setting the world to rights in a few chords. It was a euphoric time for Brazil: president Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira was breathing a gust of modernity into the country, and bossa nova was its soundtrack.
The intimacy of bossa nova spaned a departure from the grandiloquence often associated with the samba canção, which dominated the Brazilian music spanet at the time. This style had already slowed the rhythm of samba somewhat and some of its musicians, such as Dorival Caymmi and Johnny Alf, are sometimes hailed as precursors of the bossa nova style. Luiz Bonfa and Roberto Menescal, who also contributed to the soundtrack of Orfeu Negro, are now part of the bossa movement, as are Nara Leão, the muse of the Copacabana neighbourhood, and her rival from Porto Alegre, Elis Regina. She was a sublime and tormented singer who would record a major record in 1974 with Jobim, named Elis & Tom, before meeting a rock star’s fate in 1982, when she succumbed to an excess of alcohol and drugs. And then there is the great guitarist Baden Powell who, in 1966, joined forces with Vinicius de Moraes to create the unforgettable Afro Sambas that put African influences back at the heart of Brazilian music. But for the creators of bossa nova, the best was yet to come…
Conquering the North
In the United States, jazz artists were the first to react to the bossa nova phenomenon. In 1962, Miles Davis had taken up Jobim's Corcovado, renamed Quiet Nights. He recorded it on the album of the same name in the company of Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy, with direction and arrangements from Gil Evans. The same year, Dizzy Gillepsie, accompanied on piano by the Argentine composer-arranger Lalo Schifrin, immortalised their versions of Chega de Saudade (No More Blues) and Desafinado. April 1962 saw the release of the album Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Bird, which included compositions by Jobim, Baden Powell or the samba artist Ary Barroso. Erroll Garner added Samba de Una Nota (One Note Samba) to his repertoire. That summer, conductor Quincy Jones recorded Big Band Bossa Nova which, in addition to three compositions of Jobim's, included covers of songs by Luiz Bonfa and of Carlos Lyra. This record was in a certain sense a harbinger of the sanitised orchestral versions that would later link the genre to elevator music in some people's minds.
In those days, America was more than ready to welcome the Brazilians. In New York, on 21 November 1962, Carnegie Hall played host to more than twenty Brazilian musicians. They were led by Tom Jobim. João Gilberto was there, of course, to perform Garota de Ipanema. The American saxophonist Stan Getz, now a friend of the Bahian singer, was also in on the act. Luiz Bonfa, Sergio Mendes, Oscar Castro-Neves, and Carlos Lyra all made the trip too. Baden Powell, whose father had just fallen seriously ill, remained in Rio. The concert was a triumph! A few months later, Getz and Gilberto, supported by Jobim, recorded a landspan album. To boost international sales, they inserted an English-language verse in The Girl from Ipanema, but João Gilberto couldn't manage the pronunciation. It was his wife Astrud who took up the linguistic challenge, thereby earning her place in history. The record took a long time to be released, but as soon as it hit the shelves, it shot to the top of the charts. The Gilbertos' partnership would not survive the experience, but bossa nova was bewitching the whole world.
Following this huge success, many American musicians tried to ride this new wave. In 1963, Elvis Presley recorded Bossa Nova Baby, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but it wasn't much more than an exotic veneer thrown over a pretty bland rock number from the soundtrack to the film Fun in Acapulco. That same year, in his album Night Lights, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan recorded Manhã de Carnaval (Morning of Carnival) by Luiz Bonfa and a bossa-nova adaptation of Prelude in E minor which drew out the degree of influence exerted by Chopin's work on Insensatez by his friend Tom Jobim. Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Marvin Gaye would also adapt bossa-nova sounds. In 1967, the king of crooners, Frank Sinatra, partnered with Jobim, hired conductor Claus Ogerman and produced the masterpiece Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, an immortal anthology of compositions by Jobim. This success was repeated in 1971 with Sinatra & Company, orchestrated by Eumir Deodato. In 2009, the Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall used arrangements by the same Ogerman for her album Quiet Nights. As for Chet Baker, whom many credit with a decisive influence on the creation of bossa nova, (something Jobim denies), he took up Chega de Saudade, renamed No More Blues or Retrato Em Branco E Preto (Zingaro) and in 1977, at Astrud Gilberto's invitation, he recorded a duet with her, Far Away, one of the singer's few compositions, for the album That Girl From Ipanema.
In France, Henri Salvador, when he was not playing the entertainer, proved a charming singer. Until his death, he claimed that one of the sources of the bossa nova sound was the melody from Dans mon île which he wrote in 1957. He enjoyed a twilight success with Chambre avec vue, on which songs by Keren Ann and Benjamin Biolay flirted with the languid spirit of bossa. Georges Moustaki produced a French adaptation of Aguas de Marco (Les Eaux de Mars) which was originally written by Jobim: throughout his life, Moustaki stuck with that cool Brazilian style. In 2005, in Rio, he recorded Vagabond in Rio, with Vinicius de Moraes's arranger, Francis Hime. On this record, he pays tribute to Jobim with Tom, a duet with the singer Paula Morelenbaum, who was part of the Brazilian's final group. Moustaki was introduced to Brazil by Pierre Barouh, the founder of the label Saravah, whose name is taken from a song by Vinicius and Baden Powell, Samba de Bençao, which he adapted into French. It is also the title of a documentary, which he filmed in 1969, in which we see and hear the singing of Maria Bethania, the sister of Caetano Veloso, and Baden Powell, who would become his friend and follow him to France to escape the dictatorship.
A plethora of singers tried their hand at bossa nova in French with varying degrees of success: Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, Sacha Distel, Nino Ferrer, Bernard Lavilliers, Jean-Louis Murat or Claude Nougaro. In 1991, Etienne Daho produced a cover of The Girl from Ipanema for Lio and, in 1996, sang Les Bords de Seine as a duet with Astrud Gilberto, who had been largely forgotten by then. In 2016, Pauline Croze recorded an album entitled Bossa Nova for which she brought on board Vinicius Cantuaria and Flavia Coehlo for a track-list with a strong Brazilian influence. In September 2017, Laurent Voulzy released the album Belem with the help of Philippe Baden Powell, son of the pioneer of bossa nova. A song written by Powell senior features here among original creations and adaptations of works by other writers, including Jorge Ben.
A second wind
After the advent of bossa nova, Brazilian music would never be quite the same again. But the aftermath of its global success proved difficult. On 31 March 1964, a military coup installed a dictatorship that would last twenty years. But the Brazilian people are musicians and bossa was a new card in their hands. Its slow swing and softness mean that it can find a home in all repertoires. Sergio Mendes, Marcos Valle and Jorge Benjor first became famous through bossa nova, to which they stayed more or less loyal throughout their careers, while others have developed even closer ties with this style and its creators.
In 1968, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé and the group Os Mutantes, launched the Tropicalia movement, which transposed the freedom of Western Flower Power into a Brazilian context. In the song named Tropicalia, a kind of musical manifesto, Veloso paid tribute to Carnival, to Carmen Miranda and to bossa nova. Veloso, like Gil and many musicians of their generation, believed that the invention of bossa nova was decisive for their careers. João Gilberto, like them a native of Salvador de Bahia, was seen as the spiritual father of the movement. He accepted this role, and in 1973 he first performed compositions by Gil and Veloso on his album Joao. In 1981, Gil, Veloso and his sister Maria Bethania brought him into the studio to create Brasil.
In 2014, Gilberto Gil released Gilbertos Sambas, made up of songs by the Bahian master. Chico Buarque, a star of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), became João Gilberto's brother-in-law when Gilberto married his sister Heloísa Maria Buarque de Hollanda, known as Miucha, in 1965. But his stronger musical partnership was with Tom Jobim. His career was put on a firm footing in 1968 when the pair's song Sabia, a veiled criticism of the dictatorship, won first prize at Brazil's Festival Internacional da Canção (International Song Festival). A high point in his career was the 1971 album Construção. Released during his exile in Rome, this record was produced by Roberto Menescal and features four songs written with Vinicius de Moraes, including one collaboration with Tom Jobim, who is also credited in the liner notes.
Vinicius de Moraes kept on composing songs until his death in 1980. In the guitarist Toquinho he found an ideal collaborator. Jobim was active until the very end, dying in 1994. He recorded and played concerts around the world with the band Nova Banda composed of his wife, his children, those of Dorival Caymmi and the Morelenbaums, with Paula singing and Jaques on the cello. In 1999, the city of Rio named an airport after him. In 2001, the Morelenbaums joined forces with Ryuichi Sakamoto to record the tribute album Casa, some of which was recorded in Jobim's house.
As of 2019, João Gilberto is still alive. A whimsical, mercurial figure, he never gives interviews and does not always turn up to his own concerts. Produced by Caetano Veloso, the last studio album released under his name in 1999, Voz e Violão, ends as his career began, with the track Chega de Saudade. In 2000, Bebel Gilberto, the daughter he had with Miucha, enjoyed great international success with the electro bossa nova album Tanto Tempo, produced by Serbian-born musician Suba, who died shortly before its release. Since then, she has kept a somewhat lower profile.
The marriage between bossa nova and electronic music was sealed as early as the mid-90s by the English group Everything But The Girl who released a very successful cover of Corcovado; likewise, the American duo Thievery Corporation made this combination their specialty. The Brazilian group BossaCucaNova have been exploring the same mixture since 1999. Among the Brazilian heirs of this tradition there is the guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, who regularly covered Jobim and devoted an entire album to him. The singer Marcio Faraco, who moved to France, and was supported at the start of his career by Buarque, produces music that evokes a golden era when guitars flourished on the beaches of the bay of Rio. Originally from Bahia, the fine guitarist and melodist Tigana Santana explores Afro-Brazilian dimensions, taking up where Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes had left off with Afro-Samba sounds.
Finally, in the land of fado, the delicate art of bossa nova could not go unnoticed. In 1968, the poet Vinicius de Moraes and the diva Amalia Rodrigues spent an evening in Portugal. A few Portuguese poets were present, poems were recited, songs were performed and the evening was recorded. Since that day, the piece Saudades do Brasil Em Portugal has become a fado classic. Singer Antonio Zambujo regularly covers Brazilian songs in his own way. In 2010, he performed Poema dos Olhos da Amanda and Apelo by De Moraes for his album Guia. In 2017, he was nominated for the Latin Grammy Awards with his album of covers by Chico Buarque. For her third album, Transparente, Mariza brought in Jaques Morelenbaum as a producer. And finally, in 2016, Carminho recorded Carminha Canta Tom Jobim with the Nova Banda and invited Marisa Monte, Maria Bethania and Chico Buarque to take part.
Clearly, this story is far from over...